LIDIA VIANU -- MICHAEL HAMBURGER
I am a survivor from a different culture
Published in The European English Messenger, Spring 2006 (pp. 35-37)
Interview with the British poet MICHAEL HAMBURGER (born 22 March, 1924)
LIDIA VIANU: In 1980 Romania was still under communism. Foreign books were out of our reach. We were cut off from anything published in England. Somehow I managed to read your volume Real Estate, and have been teaching it ever since. You struck me as a deeply physical and also metaphysical poet at once. Both body and soul, and both on the way out somehow. Are you a tragic poet, do you think?
MICHAEL HAMBURGER: It is impossible for a poet to characterize his own work. From other people I gather that I am a gloomy poet, if not a tragic one. The reasons for that are in my biography, which I cannot trace here; but I wrote a book of memoirs, A Mug’s Game (1975, second version String of Beginnings (1991), about my early years only.
LV. You have translated Marin Sorescu, the Romanian poet who used his own deathbed as a table for poetry in The Bridge. Have you ever been to Romania?
MH. I met Marin Sorescu repeatedly at international poetry festivals, and it was he who asked me to translate his poems, which I knew only from German translations. I do not know Romanian, but the language is not totally unintelligible to me as Hungarian is, for instance – be cause of the Latin components of the language. I was fortunate enough to have Oskar Pastior's permission to draw on his excellent German versions, but could at least read Sorescu's poems in the original Romanian, so that their rhythms and
sounds were accessible to me.
I was invited to Romania at least once, but was warned that I should not be free to travel where I pleased in the country, but should be more or less confined to the Writers' Union. Because I ceased long ago to be an urban poet and feel claustrophobic in literary conferences, I could not accept such an invitation. I did meet many Romanian poets in England and elsewhere, but failed to meet the poet Doinas, who translated one of my long poems, ‘Travelling’.
LV. Why did you choose Sorescu to translate?
MH. I was attracted to Marin Sorescu's subversive wit. If he was a tragic poet also, fundamentally, he had a black humour that objectivized and allegorized his personal malaise. His kind of invention could also be appreciated by English readers with no direct experience of the pressures to which they were a response – thanks, in part, to an English tradition of nonsense verse.
LV. You are a highly reputed translator and your major source is German literature. You have translated Buchner, Celan, Enzensberger, Goethe, Grass, Hölderlin, Huchel, Rilke, and Trakl. Is translation of poetry creation as well?
MH. Translation came naturally to me because as a child I was translated from Germany to Britain. So I began to translate when I was still at school, also choosing to specialize in what was called Modern Languages and amounted to French and German. One of my earliest translations was of the prose poems of Baudelaire, and as a soldier in Italy I also taught myself Italian, so as to be able to read Dante. Though I specialized more and more in German, from time to time I continued to translate from other languages.
Translation, to me, was an activity separate from the writing of my own poems – rather as, for musicians, composition is separate from performance or the interpretation of other people's music. I don’t ask myself whether my translations are creative. It's enough for me if they serve a useful purpose. Some of them were important enough to me to occupy me almost throughout my long life – like Hölderlin , with successive editions from 1943 to 2005. Towards the end of my life, though, I had to give up translating, so as to be able to concentrate entirely on my own poems.
LV. Your poetry is very much in earnest. You ignore the ironic fervour of your contemporaries. You hate mocking at the words or at the reader’s expectations. You mean what you say. Every line is heavy with profound sadness at the way of all flesh. What do you think of the jesting air and the undeniable shallowness of some contemporary poets?
MH. Yes, I suppose that I am a very serious poet – except for satirical verse, which I have also been compelled to write, though much of it may be inferior to my more serious poems – perhaps because I am not playful enough by nature, and even my satirical or polemical verse is not entertaining. Now I find myself very much out of sympathy with most of the poetry of my younger contemporaries, but am aware that I am a survivor from a different culture.
LV. Do you read much poetry these days? Whom do you prefer, of your contemporaries or of the younger poets that you know?
MH. For that reason I read mainly classics and dead authors now – with very few exceptions. Since I have given up literary criticism also, which I practised for decades, I can’t presume to judge my younger contemporaries. Both literally and metaphorically, in old age I have had to content myself with the cultivation of my own garden; and even as a gardener I am a grower of mainly obsolete or obsolescent fruit.
LV. What in your life led you to poetry? Like all writers, I am sure you have a secret story, a story of your sensibility. How did you become a poet and also a translator?
MH. Among the arts, music was my first love; but the pressures of education did not allow me to attain proficiency in that art. Poetry was close enough to music to become an alternative ever since my adolescence – though I was a late developer as a poet, partly because I had to spend four years as a soldier, during which formative years writing, most of the time, was physically and practically impossible for me.
LV. My MA students (within the English Department of Bucharest University we have just started an MA which translates contemporary literary texts from and into English) are in the process of translating your poems into Romanian. What would you advise them, both as the author and as a translator?
MH. I can offer no advice to translators; of my poems. I have had too many different kinds of translators, from the pedantically literal to the so-called ‘imitators’ whose real wish was to produce poems of their own. All I can say is that as a translator I have tried to get as close as possible not only to the semantics of the work translated, but to its way of breathing – which, to me, is the most essential characteristic of any poetic text.
LV. When one asks for an interview, one secretly hopes to find a very intimate area of the interviewee which nobody has ever put their finger on. You have been amply interviewed, I cannot hope for much. But I must tell you that reading your poems has made me find a secret area of my being I never knew existed. You made me perceive mortality with a new strength. Has that ever been your poetic aim?
MH. I have never been able to reveal the mainsprings of my poetry. If I knew what they are, it could well have been impossible or unnecessary to write my poems, because poems are adventures that take me into unpredictable regions – even if they begin with recognizable persons, things or scenes. I have learnt more about my constant concerns and themes from other people’s responses to my work than from a self-analysis I do not practise. That, incidentally, is the justification of good criticism – as distinct from the hyperbole of praise or malice that has almost replaced such good criticism in my own country. But I recognize the truth of what you write about my obsession with time and mortality.
LV. I remember teaching you under Ceausescu, in icy cold classrooms, to freezing students, who never failed to understand the pain in your lines, even though they were engrossed in their own tragedy, which was totally different. You have a very compelling gift of communicating moods. Is there a feature about your work that you would have liked critics to comment yet no one has noticed?
MH. It is good to know that your students could respond to my work under Ceausescu. I had no direct experience of that dictatorship, but lived for a short time under the dictatorship of Hitler and, in my military service, experienced the consequences of a world war when serving in Italy, Austria and on a brief visit to my surviving relatives in Berlin. Though I was not a mainly political poet, I was always conscious of what was going on under the conflicting dictatorships before, during and after that war. Personally, I was fortunate enough to find a new home in what was a highly civilized country, but could never forget that any civilization is a frail structure easily destroyed. Again, I can’t tell critics what to notice in my work. Lately my work has received more searching attention in the German-speaking countries than in the English-speaking – as in a book by my Austrian translator Peter Waterhouse, who had an English father and remains a British subject, though he writes in German.
LV. Condemned to reading almost nothing written abroad in the 1980s, a young teacher of contemporary British literature (if that is what I was, considering I could not find any contemporary books to read) at the English Department of Bucharest University, I discovered you, and the enthusiasm of that discovery – I had no idea who you were, what your poetic status was – has been with me for more than two decades. It was mere hazard that I happened to find your book. But it gave me a standard for poetry. Is poetry your calling? Or is it translation?
MH. So I, too, cannot know what my poetic status is. In earlier decades I was included among the outstanding poets in British and American anthologies, in recent decades my work has been omitted from such anthologies and my books of poems no longer appear in the USA. I attribute this to a shift in the literary culture, which I can do nothing to change. What matters to me is that I have been able to continue writing my poems in old age, regardless of how they are received or not received. At the moment I am finalizing another book of new poems, though this is likely to be my last, at the age of 82. All a poet can do is to write the poems he or she is impelled to write – just as nearly all my translations were of work that impelled me for one reason or another, since I was never a professional translator dependent on commissions. Once a work is done, it goes out of our control. So it is best for us not to give a thought to questions that must be asked and answered by others.
January 17, 2006